Is Pope Francis Redefining Catholic Doctrine?

by Paul Simmons

In the first year of his pontificate, Pope Francis has undeniably shaken up the Catholic world with a dramatic change in approach and style as compared to his predecessors. While much of the mainstream media has been unified in singing praises on the pope’s efforts to “reform” the Church, responses within the Catholic faithful itself are not as unified.  In fact, Catholic response to Pope Francis can be classified into three, distinct, emerging “camps”.

The first camp includes the more liberal elements within the Church who, like mainstream media, have leaped on the bandwagon, rejoicing at the seemingly more liberal attitude of the Catholic hierarchy on previously hot-button topics such as gay marriages and abortion.

The second camp includes those in the “middle” who, while recognising the radically different approach, nonetheless insist that the pope really hasn’t changed any Catholic doctrine.  Instead, they say that the pope has a more “pastoral” approach, and the difference between him and previous pontiffs is more in terms of emphasis and style rather than substance, or doctrine.

The third camp includes those who are increasingly branded by mainstream media as the “far right”, the “conservatives”, who are alarmed at the dramatic contrast in approach by the current pontiff and his predecessors.  Many “conservative” blogs and publications are increasingly pointing out that this is not just a subtle change in style we are witnessing – instead, they say, it is a powerful revolution slowly unveiling that is increasingly leading to fundamental changes not just in “style”, but in “substance”, or Church doctrine.

The key question, therefore, is this: Is Pope Francis actually re-defining Catholic doctrine?  Has he made any substantial changes to Catholic doctrine that are fundamentally opposed to the Church’s traditional teachings as contained in the Catechism?

In this article, we examine five (5) teachings of Pope Francis which, upon closer scrutiny, appear to be efforts at re-defining certain important Catholic doctrines.

Can Atheists go to Heaven?

On May 21, 2013, Pope Francis created a global firestorm of religious debate as a result of a homily that talked about atheists.  In that controversial homily, the pope essentially emphasized that what matters more is not so much our religious affiliation, but that “we do good”:

If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

After that homily, headlines in major newspapers and mainstream press such as the New York Times screamed with the “big news” that according to the pope, even atheists can now go to heaven: all of us, including atheists, will “meet one another there [heaven]” for as long as we do good.  Here are some examples of the various headlines that made it in major publications: “Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate”“Is Pope Francis a heretic? No but he does raise questions”“Pope Francis: ‘Even the atheists’ can go to heaven’.”  

In a letter to Eugenio Scalfari, atheist founder and editor of La Republicca, Pope Francis expounded on this theme further, suggesting that all that matters for atheists is to “obey their own conscience”:

The question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.

There are two important points of Church teaching that we need to keep in mind when we read the Pope’s statement above:

  1. Atheism is a mortal sin
  2. Salvation can only be attained through Jesus Christ, and through His Body, the Church

Atheism is a mortal sin.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches that atheism is a mortal sin.  Those who die without repenting of mortal sin go to hell. Therefore, atheists who die without repenting of their mortal sin cannot go to heaven.  The Catechism clearly states this:“Atheism must therefore be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time…Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion.” (Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 1, #2123)

We also recall the words of Jesus Himself, who emphasised that loving God is the first and the greatest of all the commandments:

And one of them, a doctor of the Law, putting him to the test, asked him, “Master, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus said to him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”(Matthew 22:35-40)

Rather than warning atheists of the dangers of remaining in a state of mortal sin, or giving them proofs for the existence of God, the pope instead implies that being an atheist is all right: for as long as they “obey their own conscience” (even if this “conscience” tells them that God doesn’t exist).

Salvation can only be attained through Jesus Christ. This is the very foundation of Christianity and our Faith.  Our Faith clearly states that those who do not repent and believe in Jesus cannot be saved: “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father but through Me.” Therefore, atheists who do not repent and ask Jesus for mercy cannot be saved.   Furthermore, the Church teaches that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Catholic Church which is His body.  Therefore, they cannot be saved who, with full knowledge of the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, refuse to enter or remain in the Church.

The Previously Condemned Liberation Theology Movement is Back

Liberation Theology is a political and theological movement which originated in Latin America. The movement interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in relation to a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions.  The term was coined in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, widely regarded as the founder of the movement.  He wrote one of the movement’s most famous books, “A Theology of Liberation”.  It has been criticized as a Marxist interpretation of the gospel, focusing on freedom from material poverty and injustice rather than giving primacy to spiritual freedom.

Both John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI condemned Liberation Theology. In a 1979 speech given to the Latin American bishops conference, John Paul II criticised the movement, saying “this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechism”.  

In 1984, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued an Instruction on Liberation Theology entitled“Liberatis Nuntius”.  In the document, Ratzinger condemned the movement, clarifying in unequivocal terms the Church’s position: “An analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes afundamental threat to the faith of the Church.”

More recently, on 7 March 2014, the Catholic News Agency publishedexcerpts of an interview with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI conducted by an Italian newspaper, in which Benedict called Liberation Theology a“falsification of the Christian faith”. Referring to Liberation Theology, he said:

It [Liberation Theology] was an error. Poverty and the poor were, without a doubt, set at the center of Liberation Theology, yet in a very specific perspective…It was said that it was not a question of help or of reforms, but rather of the great upheaval from which a new world would spring…the Christian faith was being used as a motor for this revolutionary movement, transforming it into a political force…A falsification of the Christian faith needed to be opposed precisely for the sake of the poor and in favor of the service rendered to them.

What is wrong with Liberation Theology, and why did previous pontiffs condemn it?

First, Liberation Theology was considered by many as a dangerous re-packaging of Marxism – the underlying philosophy behind the scourge of communism which has driven billions of people to atheism. Many statements written by Gutierrez in his book “A Theology of Liberation” were condemned by then Cardinal Ratzinger for their Marxist tone.  Gutierrez went so far as to call for a “socialist society” to come to pass:

Only a radical break with the present state of things, a profound transformation of the property system, the access to power by the exploited class, a social revolution that breaks up that dependence, will allow a different society, a Socialist society to come to pass.

Another great error of the movement is that it puts liberation from earthly injustice as the topmost priority of Christianity; liberation from sin is de-emphasised. Then Cardinal Ratzinger, however, emphasised that sin, not human injustice or poverty, is the greatest evil:

New Testament revelation teaches us that sin is the greatest evil, since it strikes man in the heart of his personality. The first liberation, to which all others must make reference, is that from sin…the most radical form of slavery is slavery to sin. Other forms of slavery find their deepest root in slavery to sin. That is why freedom in the full Christian sense, characterized by the life in the Spirit, cannot be confused with a license to give in to the desires of the flesh…it is significant that the term “freedom” is often replaced in Scripture by the very closely related term, “redemption”.

Under Pope Francis, however, the Liberation Theology movement is making a dramatic comeback.   Yes, this movement, described by previous pontiffs as a “fundamental threat to the faith of the Church”, is very much back in the spotlight.

In early September 2013, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an interview with Gutierrez, an article written by Gutierrez himself, as well as two other articles praising his work – one of them by the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard L. Muller.  Archbishop Muller, a close friend of Gutierrez, supports the movement, saying:  “The Latin American ecclesial and theological movement known as ‘Liberation Theology’, which spread to other parts of the world after the Second Vatican Council, should in my opinion be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.”

One of Pope Francis’ earliest gestures was to invite Gutierrez himself to Rome.  In their meeting in Rome on September 11, 2013, Francis and Gutierrez celebrated Mass together, then had breakfast.   Not long after that meeting with Gutierrez, Pope Francis revived the stalled beatification case of another exponent of Liberation Theology – Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador assassinated in 1980. More recently, on February 20, 2014, Gutierrez was invited to speak in a high-profile event in the Vatican (which coincided with all the Cardinals of the world visiting the Vatican for the installation of 19 new Cardinals) – the launch of a book by Archbishop Muller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Some observers have also noted that the movement is close to becoming official doctrine of the Church  under “Evangelii Gaudium”, the Pope’s first apostolic exhortation.  The document sparked much controversy, particularly in the West for its condemnation of capitalism, with some conservative Americans, such as the famous US radio commentator Rush Limbaugh even saying that the Pope was preaching “pure Marxism”.

The Church is Like Mary and Has Flaws

In a General Audience on September 11, 2013, Pope Francis gave a Catechesis on the Church and the Blessed Virgin Mary, where he gave a questionable analogy between the Church which “has defects”, and Mary:

The Church and the Virgin Mary are mothers, both of them; what is said of the Church can be said also of Our Lady and what is said of Our Lady can also be said of the Church…Do we love the Church as we love our mothers, also taking into account her defects? All mothers have defects, we all have defects, but when we speak of our mother’s defects we gloss over them, we love her as she is. And the Church also has her defects: but we love her just as a mother. Do we help her to be more beautiful, more authentic, more in harmony with the Lord?

The above is a very subtle re-definition of both the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (proclaimed by Pius IX in 1854), and the doctrine of the Church’s own perfect sanctity. If we were to re-construct the above statement, the unstated conclusion (which the readers are left to infer) is that Our Lady has defects and is not “spotless”:

  1. Pope Francis: “…what is said of the Church can be said also of Our Lady.”
  2. Pope Francis: “the Church also has her defects…”
  3. Unstated Conclusion (Reader): Therefore, Our Lady also has her defects.

Again, although the conclusion is not clearly stated, the inevitable flow of the argumentation subtly leads the reader to reach the conclusion that Mary is “flawed” and has “defects”, just like the Church which also has defects. This is contrary to the Church teaching on the dogma of the Immaculate Conception:

Because Mary was destined to be the Mother of the Son of God, and because it was repugnant that God should have any contact, however indirect, with sin, Mary was preserved from the very first moment of her existence from the spiritual darkness of original sin. Therefore, from the very instant of her conception in the womb of her mother Anna, Mary was in union with God, her soul was flooded with His love, she was in the state of sanctifying grace.

Church teaching is clear: The Mother of God is flawless, without sin: she is Immaculate.  As such, Mary is the Mother of the Church and our model.  In his Apostolic Exhortation Signum Magnum given May 13, 1967, Pope Paul VI emphasised that “Mary is the Mother of the Church – not only because she is the mother of Jesus Christ…but also because she ‘shines as the model of virtues for the whole community of the elect.’”

Another important teaching to remember is that of the doctrine of the Church’s own perfect sanctity.     The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasises that despite the sinfulness of the Church’s members, the Church herself is without any flaws – she is “unfailingly holy.” Below is theexact text from the Catechism on this teaching:

The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as ‘alone holy,’ loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God. The Church, then, is “the holy People of God,” and her members are called “saints.” (Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 9, #823)

Pope Piux XI, in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, said:

…the Church, although human faults can be found in her, is always the Church of Christ, and, as such, true and infallible in preserving and transmitting the sacred deposit of faith, that is, of truth and heavenly grace; and she is holy…

Pope Pius XII, on the other hand, said:

Certainly the loving Mother is spotless in the Sacraments, by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary graces through which, with inexhaustible fecundity, she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors. But it cannot be laid to her charge if some members fall, weak or wounded.

“We need not be afraid” of the Last Judgement 

In a general audience given on December 11, 2013, Pope Francis gave aCatechesis on the Last  Judgement that, upon closer inspection, is essentially a reversal of important aspects of the Church’s official teaching on the matter.

Before we go into the details of the Pope’s catechesis, let us first understand: What is the Church’s official teaching on the Last Judgement?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a very specific teaching on the Last Judgement: “The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming. Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history…” (Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3,  Article 12, #1040)

The Last Judgement is the hour when Christ will come

in his glory, and all the angels with him. . . . Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (#1038)

The Catechism emphasizes that a holy fear of the Last Judgement is important and fruitful to our souls: “The message of the Last Judgment calls men to conversion while God is still giving them ‘the acceptable time, . . . the day of salvation.’ It inspires a holy fear of God…”

Various saints have emphasised the importance of this holy fear in the final judgement of the Lord during His Second Coming.  Saint Jerome said: “As often as I consider the Day of Judgment, I Tremble. Whether I Eat, or Drink, or whatever else I do, that Terrible Trumpet appears to Sound in my Ears,‘Arise, ye Dead, and Come to Judgment’’’.

An important point to remember is that at the day of the Last Judgement, our relatives, the saints, even the Blessed Mother can no longer intervene on our behalf, as the time of mercy shall have ceased.  For unrepentant sinners, Jesus shall not be a merciful saviour at that stage, but a terrible judge.  Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri said:

Oh! how Great, shall be the Agony-of the Reprobate, at the Sight-of the Judge! “At their Presence”, says the Prophet Joel, “the People shall be in Grievous Pains” – Joel 2:6. According-to Saint Jerome, the Presence-of Jesus Christ, will Give the Reprobate, more Pain than Hell itself. “It would”, he says, “be easier for the Damned to Bear the Torments of Hell, than the Presence of the Lord”.

To summarize, therefore, there are three important things to remember with regard to the Church’s teaching on the Last Judgement:

  1. The Last Judgement is an event that will happen at the end of time when Jesus returns in glory
  2. holy fear of the Last Judgement is important and spiritually fruitful
  3. Jesus will not be a merciful saviour at the Last Judgement; instead He will be the Just Judge.  At that stage, nobody can intercede anymore on our behalf as the time of mercy shall have ceased

In his December 11 Catechesis, Pope Francis emphasised that “we need not be afraid” of the Last Judgement.   Below are some important points he made which, upon closer inspection, are a subtle re-definition of the Church teaching on the Last Judgement:

Official Church Teaching: The Last Judgement is an event that will happen at the end of time when Jesus returns in glory

Pope Francis: “…this final judgement is already in progress, it begins now over the course of our lives… We…in a certain sense, can become judges of ourselves, by condemning ourselves to exclusion from communion with God and with the brethren.” 

Official Church Teaching: At the Last Judgement, Jesus will not be a merciful Savior, but a Just Judge.

Pope Francis: “…at the moment of judgement, we will not be left alone…How beautiful it is to know that at that juncture, in addition to Christ, our Paraclete, our Advocate with the Father…we will be able to count on the intercession and goodness of so many of our elder brothers and sisters who have gone before us on the journey of faith.”

Official Church Teaching: A holy fear of the Last Judgement is important and spiritually fruitful

Pope Francis: “We need not be afraid…Whenever we think of Christ’s return and of his final judgement…we seem to find ourselves before a mystery which towers above us…A mystery which almost instinctively arouses a sense of fear in us, and perhaps even one of trepidation…the whole of Christian revelation culminates…at Jesus’ embrace, which is the fullness of life and the fullness of love…If we think of judgement in this perspective, all fear and hesitation fade and make room for expectation and deep joy.”

What the Pope has done in his December 11, 2013 Catechesis, therefore, is to subtly re-define the very meaning of the Last Judgement:

  1. Instead of an event that will happen at Jesus’ Second Coming, the Last Judgement is “already in progress, it begins now over the course of our lives.”
  2. Instead of emphasising a holy fear of the Last Judgement, we“need not be afraid.” 
  3. Instead of clearly understanding that at the Last Judgement, Jesus will come not as a merciful saviour, but as a Just Judge, we need not be afraid, since the Last Judgement “culminates…at Jesus’ embrace, which is the fullness of life and the fullness of love…” We need not be afraid, since “…at the moment of judgement, we will not be left alone…How beautiful it is to know that at that juncture, in addition to Christ, our Paraclete, our Advocate with the Father…we will be able to count on the intercession and goodness of so many of our elder brothers and sisters who have gone before us on the journey of faith.“

The issue with the above interpretation of the Last Judgement is that it discourages people from having a holy fear of God’s justice. Why bother with repentance and conversion from mortal sin – anyway, the Last Judgement “culminates…at Jesus’ embrace”, right?

While He is a merciful God, the Church clearly emphasises another Divine attribute: His Justice.  On the Last Judgement, God’s mercy ceases – at the Second Coming, Jesus comes not as a merciful Saviour, but as a Just Judge.  As the Catechism says: “The message of the Last Judgment calls men to conversion while God is still giving them ‘the acceptable time, . . . the day of salvation.’ It inspires a holy fear of God…” A holy fear of God’s justice on the day of judgement is important!

Is There an Absolute Right and Wrong?

In September 2013, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Eugenio Scalfari, atheist founder and editor of the Italian publication La Republicca.  This letter, together with a subsequent face-to-face interview conducted by Scalfari with the Pope, sparked massive media coverage – and widespread controversy.  After much debate and controversy, the original text of the interview was taken down from the Vatican website.

During the one-on-one interview, Scalfari asked the pope: “Your Holiness, is there only one vision of the Good? And who determines what it is?”

The Pope answered:

Each one of us has his own vision of the Good and also of Evil. We have to urge it [the vision] to move towards what one perceives as the Good…I repeat it. Everyone has his own idea of Good and Evil and he has to choose to follow the Good and to fight Evil as he understands it. This would be enough to improve the world.

The Pope’s statement above is moral relativism –  a dangerous heresy that, if adopted by the world, will cause widespread adoption of sin.  To say that“each one of us has his own vision of the Good and also of Evil” is to give everyone the license to do whatever he or she wants to do in this life – it gives everyone the license to sin.  

You can do absolutely whatever you want in this life – commit an abortion, kill, commit slander, steal – for as long as your action is aligned with your“own vision of the good and also of evil.”  In other words, there are no absolute truths.  There are no absolute moral codes of conduct.  No institution, no Church has the right to definitely say what is right and what is wrong.  The Ten Commandments are not relevant – each one of us can write our own version of the Ten Commandments.  Everyone is free to judge for himself what is good and what is bad.

Pope Francis’ above position on moral relativism is a complete reversal to Pope Benedict XVI’s view that moral relativism is a danger that the Church must fight.  Just before the College of Cardinals entered the 2005 conclave to vote on the successor to John Paul II, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dean of the College of Cardinals, warned against the dangers of moral relativism:“A dictatorship of relativism is being formed, one that recognises nothing as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires.”

Doctrinal Error Veiled in Partial Truth is a Grave Danger

Pope Clement XIII once warned about the seriousness of doctrinal error veiled in partial truth, warning that “diabolical error, when it has artfully colored its lies, easily clothes itself in the likeness of truth while very brief additions or changes corrupt the meaning of expressions; and confession, which usually works salvation, sometimes, with a slight change, inches toward death.”

Pope Pius VI likewise warned against doctrinal “innovators” who

sought to hide the subtleties of their tortuous maneuvers by the use of seemingly innocuous words such as would allow them to insinuate error into souls in the most gentle manner. Once the truth had been compromised, they could, by means of slight changes or additions in phraseology, distort the confession of the faith that is necessary for our salvation, and lead the faithful by subtle errors to their eternal damnation.

Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich once saw a vision of a future false church in the period preceding the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus: “I saw also the relationship between two popes…I saw how baleful would be the consequences of this false church. I saw it increase in size; heretics of every kind came into the city of Rome.”

Are we perhaps living in the end times prophesied in the Book of Revelation – the time of the emergence of the “false prophet” and the “antichrist” that will precede the Second Coming of Our Lord?  Let us be watchful and vigilant.


  1. I obey the church…I love the Catholic Faith! I have never…repeat never from day 1 believed this man’s word.” My sheep know my voice”…

  2. I do like this article aside from some theological errors on this website. We have become accustomed to a Mary with bad theology and poor insight.

    Great prophecy from Anne Catherine Emmerich. Except for prophecy is actually meant to edify, comfort , exhort and build up the church… Not condemn it. Maybe we should work harder at knowing our Bible and an all powerful God instead of proclaiming bad theology, dubios prophecies and condemnation over the church all the time.

    Last I checked Jesus is the “eternal Father” (isiaih 9:6) and Jesus clearly says to Phillip “if you have seen me, you have seen the father” (John 14:9). So please clearly point out to me out to me the last time Jesus… Who is God…sent fire,chastisements and wrath upon anyone as “Our Lady of Akita” reports(actually he condemned his disciples for attempting this and healed a man’s ear at the last hours of his life). The wrath of God in Romans 1 is actually the free will of man at work and not really about God’s wrath at all, but more about man allowing the enemy (who comes to destroy and kill John 10:10) to usurp power and authority and destroy his life and the earth.

    Our Lady of Akita describes a God similar to the enemy in John 10:10 “the enemy has come to steal, kill and destroy and I have come that you may have abundant life” says Jesus, who is God, and the second member of the “undivided” trinity.

    Sometimes we believe that our God who created the universe and who is filled with an abundance of the fruits of the spirit is just slightly more advanced than a tempermental fire breathing dragon.

    Then we wonder in the Roman Church why we don’t actually want fellowship with that father and people stop showing up to mass… Who wants fellowship with an abusive father who stomps around heaven threatening earth before Jesus and Mary all the time? Who wants in to paradise to see Our omnipotent heavenly father panicking over earth 24 hours a day and arguing with Jesus and Mary? Everyone don’t raise your hands all at once.

    On the flip side e do know that all things work for good for those who love the Lord.

    As Catholics let us allow God to raise us up with his presence,Eucharist, spirit and Word so we can be part of the solution and not tossed to and fro with any whim of doctrine.


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